For someone who has owned quite a lot of Jaguars, I’m not really a Jag man. In fact, when I set up Great Escape Cars one of my goals was not to hire out Jaguars – because everyone else did.
All of which makes owning various models from the 60s to 90s seem as odd to me as it may to you. It’s a strange state of affairs because as an Alfa and Saab fan, Jaguars are sort of at the other end of the spectrum. Where the Italians and Swedes make cars for being different in, Jaguar makes cars for being successful and conventional in. Or so the acres of wood, leather and tradition suggest.
Except not really. As I’ve discovered on my Jaguar owning odyssey, things are not quite what they seem. I’ve discovered what everyone else appears to have known already: Jaguar is possibly the best classic car marque in the world. Like ever. Because whether you like Jags or loathe them, it’s hard to dispute the fact that no other car maker has created as many iconic models as Browns Lane. E Type, XK, XJ, Mk2, all 24 carrat classics.
My immersion in Jaguars has exploded my pipe and slippers, boardrooms and cigars expectations. Sure, the saloons of the 70s and 80s were firm executive favourites, but like off-duty CEOs, some of them have a very wild side.
I’ve now owned two Jaguar XJRs and they are resoundingly and comprehensively bonkers. They may look sobre-suited and conventional but beneath the endlessly rehashed Jaguar shape they’re sporting a prize-fighter’s physique. This, of course, won’t surprise anyone who grew up with Jaguars in the 1960s, back when they were svelte, stylish and cutting edge. Jaguar, with the Mk2, made the BMW M5 before BMW had even counted to M on its stubby little fingers.
I didn’t grow up with those Jags. I grew up with the British Leyland heritage schtick, which was a clever marketing response to a lack of new products.
When Jaguar did eventually get around to launching some new products, well, newish, the heritage vibe had worked so well that its customers only wanted more of the same. Hence the XJ40, X300, X308 and X350 all look like reheated XJs and the XKs of the 90s and 00s look a bit like E Types. If you squint.
The recycling history as heritage design trip went down well with Jaguar’s traditional customer base and Americans, particularly the ones who imagine our fair isle as all Tudor timber and windswept heathland vistas. It went down less well with, well, pretty much everyone else. Including me. And, one has to assume, most of Jaguar’s design department, which by 1994 largely consisted of a Xerox machine. That may explain Jaguar’s left field exploits like the XJ220 and XJR, which were apparently conjured up on the sly. These, plus the XJS-replacing Jaguar that actually became the DB7, showed that the embers of that 60s spirit still burnt somewhere within Browns Lane.
I’m quite glad about that because recycling old designs eventually leads to a cul de sac called Bankruptcy. Jaguar gave us the lardy Lincoln-based S-Type, the Mondeo-based X-Type, the XJS-based XK and the excellent but throwback-designed aluminium XJ. The old skool Jag enthusiasts love these because they look, apparently, like proper Jaguars. They’ve got, ahem, wood. They’ve got big lazy engines.
At the risk of upsetting many, many people, I don’t think these Jaguars that seemingly look like Jaguars are actually proper Jaguars. Jaguar’s heyday was in the 60s when looking forward was where it was at. Jaguars were fast, stylish, modern. They were aerodynamic and cutting edge. They were for the rackish gentleman on a dastardly errand involving loot or loose women.
Jaguar’s immersion in heritage had nothing to do with all that. Only the R versions of these retro-infused designs really get to the nub of what Jaguar was and should be. My XJRs may have taken a very literal approach to what a Jag should look kike, but they certainly went like Jags of old. My first, a X300 XJR – if you’re confused by the nomenclature, my apologies, I am mostly too – had a supercharged straight six 4 litre with 320 bhp. In a straight line it was ferocious. In corners it was frightening. It tramlined everywhere more than Manchester’s finest. It had five fuse boxes scattered around the car and quite a lot of things didn’t work on a regular basis, but not always the same things.
I can’t say that it was a good car. Rejigging the original 1960s XJ architecture meant the front seats were cramped and dashboard narrow and close. In 17 inch rims and with sports suspension it lost all vestage of the original XJ’s superlative ride. Handling? No, there was none of that. But it was memorable: nothing accelerated like it, including an unlucky Porsche 911 challenger near Cirencester.
So getting another XJR wasn’t top of my list. We’ve had a XKR on the fleet for a while, which I like for its turn of speed, less so for its golf n gin image.
But our classic hire fleet isn’t about my petty whims and bias. The popularity of the XKR meant a XJR saloon made sense. Like most of the rest of the male car-loving population I use ebay to watch cars I have no intention of buying and then, quite often, discover I’ve bought. So it was with a rather unhappy and unloved 1998 XJR X308 I spotted in Oldbury. Which, apparently judging by the number for sale, is where old XJRs go to die.
I went to see it and obviously bought it. With a dodgy vendor, 160,000 miles, a gearbox fault and a serious rust problem it wasn’t exactly an ideal buy. But it was cheap. We sorted the rust and faults in the workshop, MOT’d it and resprayed it and now, quite frankly, it looks flippin’ amazing.
And it goes like it looks. My old straight six XJR may have been fundamentally flawed but this V8 is superb. It’s what a classic Jag should be: good looking, fast, spacious, luxurious and good to drive. It actuallu feels special, like a proper Jag. Sure, it’s essentially another 60s XJ reboot with a narrow front cabin, annoyingly placed handbrake and a propensity to fall apart, but somehow all of these things are less bad and less irritating than with the earlier car.
I quite like the way the XJR looks, although I’m still not mad on the retro heritage thing. That aside, this feels like a Jag. It feels like the stepping stone to the current crop of Jaguars that, I feel, are the true heirs to the 60s Jag throne. Jaguars should be effortless fast, big and comfortable and our new XJR is all those things.